MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Can intercessory prayer improve the symptoms of sick people?

Why should it? It’s utterly implausible!

Because the clinical evidence says so?

No, the current Cochrane review concluded that [the] findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.

Yet, not all seem to agree with this; and some even continue to investigate prayer as a medical therpy.

For this new study (published in EBCAM), the Iranian investigators randomly assigned 92 patients in 2 groups to receive either 40 mg of propranolol twice a day for 2 month (group “A”) or 40 mg of propranolol twice a day for 2 months with prayer (group “B”). At the beginning of study and 3 months after intervention, patients’ pain was measured using the visual analogue scale.

All patients who participate in present study were Muslim. At the beginning of study and before intervention, the mean score of pain in patients in groups A and B were 5.7 ± 1.6 and 6.5 ± 1.9, respectively. According to results of independent t test, mean score of pain intensity at the beginning of study were similar between patients in 2 groups (P > .05). Three month after intervention, mean score of pain intensity decreased in patients in both groups. At this time, the mean scores of pain intensity were 5.4 ± 1.1 and 4.2 ± 2.3 in patients in groups A and B, respectively. This difference between groups was statistically significant (P < .001).

figure

The above figure shows the pain score in patients before and after the intervention.

The authors concluded that the present study revealed that prayer can be used as a nonpharmacologic pain coping strategy in addition to pharmacologic intervention for this group of patients.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This study is, in fact, extraordinary – but only in the sense of being extraordinarily poor, or at least it is extraordinary in its quality of reporting. For instance, all we learn in the full text article about the two treatments applied to the patient groups is this: “The prayer group participated in an 8-week, weekly, intercessory prayer program with each session lasting 45 minutes. Pain reduction was measured at baseline and after 3 months, by registered nurses who were specialist in pain management and did not know which patients were in which groups (control or intervention), using a visual analogue scale.”

Intercessory prayer is the act of praying on behalf of others. This mans that the patients receiving prayer might have been unaware of being ‘treated’. In this case, the patients could have been adequately blinded. But this is not made clear in the article.

More importantly perhaps, the authors fail to provide any numeric results. All that we are given is the above figure. It is not possible therefore to run any type of check on the data. We are simply asked to believe what the authors have written. I for one have great difficulties in doing so. All I do believe in relation to this article is that

  • the journal EBCAM is utter trash,
  • constantly publishing rubbish is unethical and a disservice to everyone,
  • prayer does not need further research of this nature,
  • and poor studies often generate false-positive findings.

15 Responses to Prayer as a medical therapy? Time to stop this nonsense!

  • There are so many more practical things that could be researched about chronic pain, what a waste of time and money.

  • The prayer group participated
    in an 8-week, weekly, intercessory prayer program with each session lasting 45 minutes.

    Without knowing who was doing the praying it almost looks like the subjects were doing the praying. Another bit of sloppy reporting.

  • “The authors concluded that the present study revealed that prayer can be used as a nonpharmacologic pain coping strategy in addition to pharmacologic intervention for this group of patients.”

    Correct.
    Prayer can indeed be used. But was there any useful effect on pain? Clearly, no.
    We are told the patients were ‘Muslim’, but to what extent did they ‘believe’ in the tenets of that religion?
    We need to know who did the praying, and to which or what deity or supernatural power. Presumably the one Muslims call Al Lah, but we need to be sure;
    and on what day of the week; and at what time; and… well we could go on ad infinitum.

    Prayer is a faith based activity and not susceptible to rational analysis.
    I pray that those of a religious disposition understand this.

    • @Richard

      Very good points all. Non-Muslims might argue that praying to the wrong god might have skewed the results negatively. Perhaps those who prayed were not staunch believers and their inclusion in this study was one of “going through the motions” for the benefit of the study. We don’t know.

      Various neuroimaging techniques have found, with some general coherence, brain function changes with spiritual and religious practices; and these have been noted as different from those associated with hypnosis, trance, and simple meditation practices.

      I’d be curious to know if anyone could give suggestions as to what exactly might constitute a placebo group in studies such as this one in EBCAM so as to make the findings more robust. Most religious people, after all, would know if what they were doing as study participants was a spiritual act or not; I’d think those who were given to perform something they didin’t identify as spiritual would intuitively realize that they were in the placebo group.

  • That graph does not seem to match the numerical data as reported in the abstract.
    Take a look at the bar for prayer+ after – should be 4.2 ± 2.3. If that bar is meant to represent interquartile range instead of +/- SD, then, um, maybe, but it’s still weird that it looks to be exactly the same range as the ‘before’. Same with control – the bars look to be exactly the same length for before and after. That’s very odd.

    “At the beginning of study and before intervention, the mean score of pain in patients in groups A and B were 5.7 ± 1.6 and 6.5 ± 1.9, respectively. According to results of independent t test, mean score of pain intensity at the beginning of study were similar between patients in 2 groups (P > .05). Three month after intervention, mean score of pain intensity decreased in patients in both groups. At this time, the mean scores of pain intensity were 5.4 ± 1.1 and 4.2 ± 2.3”

    • you are right, I suspect – it looks almost as though this paper has been fabricated. in which case, shame on the authors, reviewers, editors, publisher etc.

      • Those bars just don’t match anything in the text. Once you spot it, it’s blatant and shameful. Even if it’s honest error, it speaks volumes for their respect for (or knowledge of) stats and data handling, and casts doubt over the whole endeavour. Further doubt, I mean.

    • I noticed that the graph does not match the reported statistics. I also noticed that the graph is depicted with its data area currently selected (the eight blue dots on its axes).

  • I think prayers can improve certain symptoms of the sick people if praying is done by relatives/acquaintances who tend to behave in a way that increases sufferings of the patients. Of course, such prayers should be done as far as possible from the patients and, if possible, they should be accompanied by pilgrimage on foot.

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